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Inspired Ideas

How to Foster High-Quality Discussions

Six Ways to Get Students Talking

By Christina Quarelli, K-8 Curriculum Specialist at McGraw Hill

Final installment of our series, “Make Every Remote Learning Moment Count,” where we explore no-plan strategies to boost student engagement quickly.

As with writing, sometimes students just need a little nudge to dive into those whole class, small group or peer-to-peer exchanges. Students, regardless of age, often struggle with focused and productive conversations. The good news is if you are already incorporating #1 and #2 from this blog series, this goal will be much more attainable. In addition to teaching strategies, providing tools to add to their student toolbelt that they can use as needed is going to foster ownership of their contributions to collaborative conversations.

The Gift of Preparation

There is no doubt that one form of risk-taking is speaking in front of a group. Traditionally, it has widely been considered the biggest fear of adults. With the risk level ranging widely within our classroom, any opportunity to properly equip our students so that they feel less vulnerable upfront will vastly improve participation.

First and foremost, whatever questions are posed during class, small group or during breakout sessions, will be more thoughtfully answered if students are given the gift of time. “Flipping” the activity or giving students ample time to preview and process the meaning of the question and even plan out their talking points before the lesson will act as a “springboard” for your students who regularly struggle with participation, especially when asked to provide an answer on-the-spot.


Launching the discussion with fun icebreaker questions that are trivial of nature and unrelated to content can help create that safe talking space and take minimal time. Some ideas for non-academic discussion starters:

  • Chat Packs
  • Their weekend’s high/low
  • A quick game of Catch Phrase or Password
  • How do you feel? (post five emojis and let them choose)

Fat vs Skinny Questions

The type of questions we ask are just as important as the time we give them to prepare their answer. The more thought-provoking the question, the more deep and powerful the following discussion will be. When choosing the questions you will ask, be extremely selective and intentional. With hybrid and remote learning models, teachers must give themselves permission to not ask every question in their teaching guide and do the dreaded “page turn.”

Frequently, teachers feel that if they move quickly, they will cover more — but they ultimately cover less.

To achieve not only mastery but actual retention of a skill or concept, we must slow down and uncover more. Ask yourself, “Am I covering more or am I uncovering more?”

Surface level or “skinny” questions focus on the minutia. In Question-Answer Relationship terms, these are Right There. They often ask for retelling, who, what, where, when, naming, describing, agreeing/disagreeing, etc. Not much quality discussion will derive from these, if any.

When selecting discussion questions, consider asking more “fat” questions that require students to think more deeply and relate to the overarching idea. In Question-Answer Relationship terms, these are Think & Search. These meatier questions require schema, deep thinking, text-to-self connections, feelings, and often have a variety of answers (which makes them contribute to that safe learning environment as well!)

Consider the following items when selecting discussion questions:

  • Is this a new or spiraling skill?
  • Is it a tested skill or review?
  • Is schema required?
  • What is its depth/complexity?
  • Does it require students to infer?
  • Are there many possible answers?
  • Is the answer right there in the text?

Some possible “fat” discussion starters are:

  • What might have happened if…
  • What’s your opinion on…
  • When have you experienced something similar?
  • What if didn’t happen?
  • What choice would you have made?
  • How could you improve?

Higher-level DOK questions result in more powerful and meaningful discussion. Students will more strongly gravitate to these discussions as well because they leverage thoughts, feelings, background knowledge, and are safe since there is no single correct answer.

Listening and Speaking Checklists

Listening and Speaking Checklists are a great tool to help students have focused discussions, but also to be active and engaged listeners. Consider providing a checklist for speaking and listening to your students at the beginning of the semester or year. These will help them learn how to focus in ways that they should be able to use during any conversation. They are also a great tool for teachers to use when calling on students.

Some items on your checklist might be:


  • Make eye contact
  • Use reaction buttons on webinar
  • Identify three key details
  • Summarize another’s statements
  • Restate directions
  • Draw or expand upon a peer’s statement


  • Raise your virtual hand before speaking
  • Make eye contact
  • Speak clearly, slowly, and enunciate
  • Project with appropriate volume and expression
  • Respectfully disagree with others (see sentence starters below)
  • Answer thoughtfully and providing details/evidence
  • Stay on topic
  • Streamline your thoughts and remain concise

Sentence Starters

Try offering your students sentence starters to help them remain focused and connected in their dialogue while providing a springboard for your less enthusiastic participants. These can be used anytime: whole group, small group, jigsaws, partner work, or even in the chat window of your webinar. Eventually, these will create a habit of mind for your students, and they will no longer be needed. Introduce them by modeling first, and you will start hearing some impressive academic discourse. Also, if you hear a good one from a student, add it to the class list!

Self-Evaluation Rubric/Ticket-Out-the-Door

Allow students to self-reflect or fill out a self-evaluation form. When we give students the opportunity to practice and apply those metacognitive skills, they will be more aware of their action or inaction, and you have increased the chance for higher engagement for those less enthusiastic participants during the next go-around. Also, students who tend to monopolize the conversation daily may discover that they may be creating an obstacle or roadblock for a fluid and wide class discussion. A short online survey can deliver immediate insight and clarity. Some example items for this might be:

  1. What is one thing you did well?
  2. Rate your participation level (if they didn’t/it’s low…why?)
  3. How was your eye contact?
  4. What content-related clarification do you still need, if any?
  5. Do you still have something to say or a question to ask?
  6. Name one area for improvement.
  7. Something you learned from a classmate.

For more on how to make the most of every virtual learning moment, download the guide below!

Christina Quarelli is a K-8 Curriculum Specialist at McGraw Hill. Christina, a former K–8 teacher of 18 years, specializes in gifted education. She holds a Master of Education degree in Educational Counseling and has worked as both a teacher mentor and instructional coach focusing on best practices for engagement and maximizing learner potential. Christina is currently a K–8 curriculum specialist for McGraw Hill and resides in Phoenix, Arizona. Most recently, Christina has created teacher supports and resources for those transitioning to teaching their core content remotely.




Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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